142: Trying to Get Back to the Way a Relationship Used to Be

May 23, 2023

Some individuals who engage in infidelity express a desire to recommit to their spouse or primary partner, longing for a return to the way things were in their relationship. They may feel tormented by their infidelity while yearning for the past, even though they have been dissatisfied with the relationship for some time.

If you have been emotionally disconnected for a while, determining your true desires can be confusing. Many people share with Dr. Marie Murphy that they cannot leave their relationship because of the fond memories of how it used to be but they are unwilling to put in the effort required to reengage and explore what the future holds. If you find yourself resonating with these thoughts, this episode is for you.

Tune in this week to understand why it is normal to struggle with leaving a relationship in which you have invested heavily. If you are staying in the relationship solely hoping for a return to the past, you are trapped in the past and need to let it go. However, if you desire a bright, exciting, and loving present and future with your primary partner, one that surpasses what you had before, Dr. Marie Murphy is here to guide you in making that decision.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why it’s normal to have a hard time letting go of something that used to be good.

  • Dr. Marie Murphy’s response when clients tell her that their relationship was good once, and it can be the way it used to be.

  • Why people often don’t want to put the effort in and take responsibility for how they engage with their primary partner.

  • How to see the options that are available when deciding how you want to move forward.

  • Why people tend to stay in confusion and inaction around their feelings about the future of their relationship.

  • How to start deciding what you really want in this moment, and how you want to move forward. 

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do.  No shame, no blame, no judgments.  If you are ready to begin the process of resolving your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, I can help you do it.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Some of my clients who are in committed, ostensibly monogamous relationships, and are also involved with other people, tell me that they’d totally want to recommit to their spouse or their partner if only they could get back to the way things used to be in their relationship with that person.  They feel tormented by their infidelity situations, and one of the things that seems especially confounding to them is the fact that their relationship with their primary partner used to be really good.  Even if they’re currently dissatisfied with their primary partnership, even if they’ve been dissatisfied with it for quite some time, their memories of it being good in the past gnaw at them.

Moreover, sometimes people tell me that the reason why they “can’t” leave their committed relationship is because that relationship was good once, and they can’t let the relationship go unless they’re SURE that things could never be that good again.  That phrasing is kind of awkward, so let me say that again in a different way.  Sometimes a person’s reason for not being “able” to leave their committed relationship is that the relationship was good once, and it might be good again.  And because it COULD be good again, they cannot, or should not leave the relationship.  And, let me tell you, sometimes people’s explanations are a lot more elaborate than that, but this is the logic that it all boils down to.  It was good once, so therefore, it could be good again, so therefore, they can’t leave, or shouldn’t leave unless they can somehow find out for sure that it truly isn’t possible for the relationship to ever be good again.

Now, if you’re starting to think that I might be yelling at you a little, or at least, ranting a little, you’re not wrong.  If you’ve been thinking this way, and telling yourself anything along the lines of the kinds of things that I’ve just said, I am going to yell at you a little today.  Lovingly, of course.  But before I do any more of that, I want to make it clear that I am totally sympathetic to this kind of thinking.

Many of us have a really hard time letting go of something that used to be good, or quitting something that used to be good.  Many of us have a hard time quitting ANYTHING we’ve started or committed to or invested a lot into.  And relationships are often things that we have committed to, formally or informally, and invested a lot into.  Perhaps QUITE a lot into.  On top of that, many of us believe that committed romantic relationships should last forever – especially if they take the form of a marriage, and we explicitly committed to stay in our marriage forever.  And in addition to all of that, many of us have a hard time thinking about leaving something if we think that leaving is going to take a lot of work.  And it’s not unreasonable to think that getting divorced, or extricating yourself from your partner’s life will be a fair amount of work.  It might well be!  These ideas are totally common, they’re out there in the cultural fog, there are all kinds of messages that reinforce these kinds of beliefs.  And all of these kinds of beliefs fit in nicely with, or offer support for the idea that if a relationship was good once, it could be good again, and if it COULD be good again, we really shouldn’t leave the relationship.

On top of all of that, you may have REALLY enjoyed an earlier phase of your relationship with your spouse, or your committed partner.  You may have really, really loved the relationship you had with them at one point.  And you might genuinely love the idea of getting back to the way things were with your partner.  You might truly wish you could return to the period of time in which things between the two of you were pretty awesome.  Being able to snap your fingers and feel the way you used to feel about them might seem like the best possible thing that could happen.  If only you could have what you used to have with them, you wouldn’t want to be with anyone else, you’d be happy to be with them, and life would be a whole lot less complicated.  Right?

Here's the deal, people.  The past is over.  You cannot have what you once had with your partner again.  No matter how good things were at one point, you cannot have that with them again.  Whatever it was was whatever it was.  Now that is over.

That’s the bad news, but it isn’t really bad news.  Here’s the good news, although this might not actually be relevant to you.  It is POSSIBLE that you might be able to create a whole new chapter of good times with your partner.  It is possible that you might be able to create a set of good experiences with them that you enjoy even more than the good times you had in the past.  And yes, some people do actually do this.  Not everyone wants to do this, and not everyone who wants to do this is able to make this happen, but some people absolutely do and they’re super excited about it.

So when people tell me that they “can’t” leave their marriage, or their committed relationship, because things were good once, and therefore they could be good again, and they need to know if they could be good again before they decide to leave, I tell them there’s a really simple solution.  They have the option to invest in their relationship in a radically different way, and to try to make it “good again,” so to speak, or better than it ever was before.  You’re never going to get back to the way things were, but you can create a present and a future that’s amazing.  And you can try to do this too, if you want to.

But here’s the really interesting thing.  A lot times – not always, but a lot of times – when I tell people that this is an option, they don’t want to do it.  And what I mean by that is, a lot of people want to tell me how great their relationship used to be, and why that’s a reason they can’t leave that relationship, but they don’t actually want to do what it takes to re-engage in that relationship and see what’s possible in that relationship NOW.

And on the one hand, I get it.  If you’ve been disconnected from someone for a while, it can be really scary and weird and uncomfortable to even THINK about reengaging with them with the intention of finding deep connection or happiness or intimacy or all of the above or whatever it is you want.  If we’ve been having what we consider to be a tough time with someone for a while, it can be strange to think about taking responsibility for how we engage with them, and strange to even consider extending kindness or understanding towards them.  If we’ve been disengaged from someone for a while, we may have put some walls up, and we may not really like the idea of dismantling those walls.  Or we may not think we know how to do it.

And so it may seem so much easier to think, “Well, things WERE good once.  Maybe they could be good again,” and use that as a reason for not doing much of anything about our infidelity situation.  Meaning, we don’t choose to end our relationship with our spouse or our committed partner.  We don’t choose to reengage with our spouse, or partner.  We don’t choose to leave our spouse or partner.  We don’t make any decisions regarding our affair partner, if we have one, or any choices regarding whatever it is we’re doing that we think counts as cheating.  And we probably don’t decide that we’re just going to keep cheating and make peace with doing that.  No!  We tend to stay in the zone of confusion and inaction when we think, “Well, things were good once, maybe they could be good again.”  And sometimes, that’s exactly the point.  Sometimes staying the zone of confusion and inaction seems like a great idea.  It may be a lot more comfortable to stay there than to shake things up at all, even if a shakeup might lead to changes that you really like.

So if you’ve been telling yourself anything along the lines of, “Well, things were good with my partner once, so maybe they could be good again, and therefore I can’t leave them, or I can’t seriously consider leaving them,” the first question I want you to ask yourself is, “Do I really want anything to change right now?”  And by that I mean, do you want to get out of confusion and indecision?  Do you want to actually try to see what’s possible in your primary relationship?  Do you want to make any decisions about your other relationship, or relationships?    

I want you to answer those questions as honestly as you can.  And if you find that you don’t really want anything to change right now, then you’re all set.  You can keep thinking about the way things used to be with your primary partner, and you can keep wondering if things might ever be that good again, and you don’t have to do anything differently, and you can keep the status quo going.  And I am dead serious when I say that that is a legitimate choice to make.  But as usual, my exhortation is that you make that choice CONSCIOUSLY and deliberately if you’re going to make it!  You probably do not want to not allow yourself to make this decision unconsciously, or by default.

However, if you do NOT want to stay in the status quo, if you DO want change, then I want you to cut the shit and stop telling me or telling yourself that things with you and your primary partner were good once, so therefore they could be good again, so therefore you can’t do anything decisive about your situation.  Instead, I want you to answer the following question:

Do you want things to be good with your person NOW?

There’s a difference between cherishing the memory of when things were good with someone, and wanting things to be good with someone in a new way now.  To echo something I said earlier, sometimes we want something to still be good because it once was good.  We love to try to grasp onto good things and keep them forever.  And although I am sympathetic to this, I’m only sympathetic to a point.  Things change, and we suffer a lot less if we’re willing to allow change instead of trying to resist it.  

And it’s pretty likely that you’ve changed since the good times you had with your person, way back when, and it’s pretty likely that they’ve changed.  And what I want to know is, given the way you know yourself to be now, and given the way you know your partner to be now, do you want to create good times with them NOW?  It may be that you absolutely want to try.  It may be an easy yes.  But it may also be the case that you just aren’t all that interested in your partner anymore, because of who you’ve become, and who they’ve become.  It may be that in addition to the good times you had with your person, you’ve also had some pretty not-good times, and you aren’t all that interested in looking beyond the not-so-great experiences you’ve had with them.  

If you want things to be good with your person again, you can get to work on trying to make that happen.  That may be a process that requires an investment of your time and energy and effort and vulnerability and willingness to tolerate uncertainty and all kinds of other things.  But if you WANT to create good times with your person again, it’s totally worth the effort to try to do this, even if there aren’t any guaranteed outcomes.

One of the really cool things about long-term, committed relationships is that they can have these interesting ebbs and flows, and there can be opportunities for reconnection and reinvigoration after periods of disconnection and disengagement.  You can get to know someone again and again, and each round of discovering them anew can be wonderful in a new way.  And experiencing this kind of renewal or reconnection with someone who you want to experience that with can be a great joy.

But just because the kinds of things I just mentioned CAN be a great joy doesn’t mean you have to want to work on making those things happen with your committed partner.  Just because you CAN theoretically reconnect with someone after a period of disengagement doesn’t mean you have to want to do that.  

So to that effect, if you think you want things with your person to be good NOW, I want you to ask yourself why you want that.  If your answer is something like, “Because I really want to get to know this person again, I want to know who they are now and I want to be more dedicated to enjoying them for who they have become” then that might be a pretty good reason to reinvest in the relationship.  There can be other good reasons too, of course.  I’m not going to give you a whole list of potentially good reasons to reinvest in a relationship, but that doesn’t have to be the only one.

However, if you can’t come up with any great reasons – and by that I mean, reasons which you think are great – why you want things to be good with your person now, I want you to consider the possibility that you may need to call bullshit on yourself.  If you find yourself repeating the phase “Because things were good once,” you may want to see if you can come up with a reason that isn’t a reference to the past, but pertains to what you want to create and experience in the future.

Re-investing in a relationship that has been less than great for a while can take some serious EFFORT.  Deciding to re-orient yourself to a relationship that has been challenging, or not that exciting may not seem all that fun – especially if you’ve got someone on the side that you’re having a lot of fun with.  Or someoneS on the side that you’re having a lot of fun with.  Now that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing.  Sometimes choosing to do the less-fun, less-easy, less-glamorous thing is totally worth it, or is totally the right thing for us.  But all the same, less-easy is less easy.  And in order to do the less easy things in our love lives, it helps to have great reasons why we’re going to do them.  Because having great reasons helps us build strong desire, or strong motivation to do the things.  And there are some things in life that we can only do if we have really strong desire, or motivation.    

And this is where the rubber really hits the road.  There’s a difference between wanting to re-invest in a relationship and see what’s possible, even though there are no guarantees, and not wanting to deal with ending the relationship.  Our desire to avoid dealing with the disruption of ending a relationship may be pretty strong, and that’s fair enough, but that still may not translate into desire to create something new with your committed partner.

And quite simply, if you do not have true desire to reinvest in your relationship with your “old partner,” you may not do it!  What I mean is, you may say you want to reinvest, but if you don’t really WANT to, you may not put any effort into trying.  And if you don’t do it, you’ll never know if you could have something good with them again. 

And for some people, this ends up being a good thing, in a way.  They effectively prove to themselves that they don’t know if their relationship could be good again, because they don’t TRY to make it good again.  And they let “not knowing” if their relationship could be good again be a reason why they “can’t” leave the relationship, or “shouldn’t” leave the relationship.  And this line of thinking leaves a lot of people staying in roughly the same place in their infidelity situations for a long time.  They kinda want to leave their committed relationship so that they can pursue another relationship, or at least have the option to do that – but they also think that if their primary relationship could be good again, they’d want to stay in that relationship.  But if they don’t have genuine desire to reinvest in that relationship and see what’s possible there, they don’t actually do it.  And by not doing it, they continue to show themselves that their primary relationship isn’t as good as it used to be, or as good as they’d like it to be.  

I’ve seen people waste a lot of time this way.  And I do not relish saying that!

I really want you to consider the possibility that if you do not have true desire to create something new with someone who is not new to you, you may be better off acknowledging this than trying to bullshit yourself about this.  If you DO have a true desire to reinvest in an old relationship, then by all means, get to work!  That can be a wonderful thing to do.

But if you don’t WANT to try and make a relationship that was once good good again, you may be a lot better off doing the work of giving yourself permission to admit that to yourself than you will be if you try to make yourself want something that you don’t actually want.  Yes, acknowledging this to yourself may be scary, and making choices and changes may be scary, but this may be the portal you have to pass through in order to live more of the life that you want to be living.

Sometimes people ask me, “Well, how do I know if I actually want something, or if I’m trying to convince myself to want something?” and you may be wondering that, too.  My answer is that you probably already know the answer.  You probably know what it feels like to know that you want something.  You probably know what that feels like in your body.  You’ve probably experienced uncomplicated desire before.  Or an uncomplicated preference for something.  Thinking, “I really want this thing” can feel really good if we don’t think that wanting that thing is problematic.  Wanting something and believing that it’s okay to want it and okay to have it usually creates a reasonably positive set of sensations in our body.  We may feel a surge of energy.  We may feel especially alive.  Or we may feel ease, as opposed to tension.

On the other hand, when we think we should want something, but we don’t really want it, we don’t typically feel all that awesome.  In fact, we may feel pretty bad.  We may not feel TERRIBLE, but we don’t feel good.  And this is important to be aware of and take seriously.

If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you may have heard me say that feelings, essentially, are sensations in our body that are created by our thinking.  That’s why I like the word “emotion,” because it connotes energy in motion.  Feelings are energy, or sensations, or vibrations, moving through our physical selves.  We tend to treat emotions as cognitive events, but they are bodily experiences.  

Now, since our emotions are generated by our thinking, it’s really useful to tune into how we feel in our bodies if we think we don’t know what we think about something, or we think we don’t know what we want to do about something.  Genuinely wanting to do something is going to feel very different in your body than thinking that you should want to do something.  Thinking “I want to do this” and BELIEVING that is going to create a very different emotional experience than thinking “I should want to do this” is going to create.  If you’ve heard me say this before, you can say it with me now: should feels like shit.  When you think you “should” do something, it does not feel good in your body.  When you WANT to do something, it feels entirely different in your body.  

You can start to cultivate awareness of how wanting to do something feels in your body – and how NOT wanting to do something feels in your body – and use this awareness to your advantage.  Once you start to know the difference between how wanting feels and how not-wanting feels, you can never un-know it.  You may be able to override it, at times, but that’s different from not knowing it.

So I want you to tune into your body and notice how you feel physically when you tell yourself that you want to make your relationship good now because it was good once.  If you feel genuine desire to do this, even if it’s a modest amount of desire, that will probably feel pretty good.  Or at least MILDLY good.  Feeling even moderately hopeful or moderately interested or moderately curious usually feels at least okay in your body.  Or perhaps mildly positive.  On the other hand, feeling moderately DISINCLINED to do something usually feels at least mildly not-great in your body.  If I don’t want to do something, I usually feel heavy, and sluggish, and maybe a little foggy-headed.  If I REALLY don’t want to do something, I usually feel sensations that are far more intense than that.  And if I’m telling myself that I should want to do something, but I don’t truly want to do it, that will create a set of emotions that do not feel good in my body.  And if I tune in and pay attention, I will notice that.  

There’s a lot more I could say about how the body keeps us honest, and how we can use our body as a compass of sorts, but for today, the point is that if you think you “don’t know” if actually want to create a great experience with someone now, or you’re thinking that you ought to want to do that, tune into your body and see how you feel.  The answer you get may be surprisingly clear-cut.  Sometimes I ask people how they feel in their bodies when they think about making things great with the person they had a once-great relationship with, and they say, “I feel numb,” or “I feel nauseous,” or “I feel terrible!”  On the other hand, sometimes I ask people that same question and they say they feel more relaxed in their bodies, all of a sudden.  Or more at ease within their physical being.  And these physical experiences are important indicators of what you are thinking.  So if you think you don’t know what you want, see if you can tune into your body.  It will give you an indication of what you are thinking!

Anyway, for a lot of folks, the problem isn’t that they don’t know if they want to try to make their once-good relationship good again or not.  The problem is that they know what they want, but they don’t think it’s okay to want what they want.  Or, as is often the case, they don’t think it’s okay to not want what they don’t want.

If you find that you don’t feel much desire – or ANY desire – for making things good with your partner NOW, in the present, and in the future, then your job may be to work on giving yourself permission to acknowledge this to yourself, and to take action in the service of this.  Which may mean leaving the relationship.  And for so many reasons, many of which I’ve talked about on other episodes of this podcast, allowing yourself to choose to leave a relationship you’ve committed to may seem really hard, and it indeed, it may take some work to give yourself permission to do this.  But that work may serve you better than putting your efforts into trying to convince yourself to want something that you don’t really want, or in just thinking that things were good once, so maybe they could be good again, over and over and over, without doing anything else.

Sometimes the best way to honor the good times we had with someone is to acknowledge when we don’t want to try to create more good times with them.  Sometimes hanging onto something because it was good once isn’t really honoring anything or anybody.  The fact that your relationship with someone was good once doesn’t mean it should be good again, or will be good again, or that you have to want to try to make it good again.  The past good times are not some sort of predictor or guarantor of what will happen in the future.  The best predictor, or guarantor, of what will happen in the future is YOUR ACTIONS.  So you’ve got to ask yourself, do you WANT to put effort into creating good times in your relationship now?  Do you want to put your time and energy and love and enthusiasm into seeing what’s possible in your relationship in THIS moment in time?  Ask yourself that if you’ve been telling yourself “We were good once, so maybe we could be good again.”

All right everyone, that’s it for today.  If you would like my help applying the concepts I talk about on the podcast to the specifics of your unique infidelity situation, let’s work together.  It’s one thing to listen to me talk on the podcast, and it’s another thing entirely to have me as your coach who actively helps you deal with what’s going on in your love life.  So when you’re ready to get down to the business of making change, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  The sooner you start dealing with your infidelity situation in a way that you feel good about, the sooner you get to start feeling better, and the sooner you get to start living your life as a whole in accordance with your deepest desires and highest priorities.  And why would you want to put that off for another minute?

Thank you all so much for listening.  Have a great week!  Bye for now.


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